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Movie Review: The Prince of Egypt

By Vladimir Zelevinsky
Staff Reporter

Directed by Brenda Chapman, Steve Hickner, Simon Wells. Written by Philip LaZebnik. With the voices of Val Kilmer, Ralph Fiennes, Michelle Pfeiffer, Sandra Bullock, Jeff Goldblum, Patrick Stewart, Steve Martin, Martin Short.

This story, about a young prince who is exiled after a tragic incident, tries to rebuild his life away from home, and then triumphantly returns, reborn as a true leader, is not made by Disney, and should not be called The Zion King. Seriously speaking, and ignoring for the moment all the Disney/DreamWorks rivalry (Prince is a brainchild of ex-mousekeeter Jeffrey Katzenberg, who became the head cheese at DreamWorks), this film declares its intentions from the opening screen with the disclaimer about faithfulness to the spirit rather then the letter of the Biblical source. There's also its PG rating, total absence of talking animal sidekicks, and nary a moment of comic relief in sight. After all, what we have here is the story of Exodus, and Charlton Heston is nowhere to be seen or even heard.

Ultimately, however, the differences don't matter, since The Prince of Egypt works best when it's the simplest when it is merely a tale of two brothers (here, foster brothers), pharaoh-to-be Rameses (voiced by Ralph Fiennes) and prophet-to-be Moses (Val Kilmer). When the screenplay tries to stick to the original material (first fourteen chapters of Exodus, second book of the Old Testament), it quickly loses a good deal of its appeal.

First half wavers from merely good to truly excellent, with latter in abundance. Both the opening musical number (an operatic chorus entitled "Deliver Us") and the accompanying animation are both complex and memorable; the main achievement of this sequence (and, to lesser extent, the subsequent half an hour) is that it transports the viewers to the different time and land. The ambience of ancient Egypt, its towering sphynxes, majestic pyramids, and the golden glow of the immense sandy expanse, look both utterly realistic and artfully stylish. Characters are as good, if not better nifty designs, superb voice work, and perhaps some of the best acting in animation the range and subtlety of Moses' facial expressions rival that pinnacle of animation, Disney's Beauty and the Beast. The film hits its high point early on in a nightmarish sequence with hieroglyphs coming to life in a dazzling two-and-a-half-dimensional pantomime. It's truly a triumph of animation, boldly expanding the very possibilities of the genre.

The trouble starts soon after that, around the time the Burning Bush appears. The film stops being a fine character drama and turns into a religious epic, awash in suffocating reverence. From here on, just about every single choice made by the filmmakers is wrong, from Kilmer's bland second part as God's voice, to utterly forgettable songs, to actions which don't work with the previously established characters. This is, of course, caused by a doomed attempt to shoehorn the characters into the story which, to put it mildly, is not very strong in the aspect of character development.

The biggest problem, of course, is the clash between the story (which is, essentially, one long standoff between Moses and Rameses) and the medium. This contradiction is nowhere more obvious that in a sequence which displays staggeringly poor taste: the Plagues, with thousands of people suffering and dying, is realized a musical number and a special effects showcase. In addition, we have just about the laziest dialogue in recent memory. A choice line: the leader of Hebrews meets the pharaoh, the most powerful man in the empire and what does Moses say? Hearken to these immortal words: "Listen, we need to talk."

There is another well-done sequence in the second half (passage through the Red Sea), but by that moment, my emotional involvement was just about zero, sapped by the lack of any kind of dramatic coherency. I question both the choice of the material and the manner it was realized; one of two might have worked, but they utterly fail to co-exist together (I don't think Schindler's List would have been better if it were filmed as action-filled special-effects showcase).

On the other hand, if we take the story and the medium as given, I think the result is as good as one can reasonably expect; and whether this is a praise or a reproach, I don't know. In any case, that hieroglyph sequence alone is worth the price of admission.